In the latest New Yorker, Adam Gopnik takes notes of the recent speeches and interviews in which Obama has laid out his vision of democracy:
His words have been varied, but his purpose has been consistent and his point simple: liberalism isn’t centrism. It isn’t a way of splitting the differences between two sides, and finding an acceptable soft middle. Liberalism of the kind he practices, the President has been saying, is the most truly radical of ideologies, inasmuch as it proposes a change, makes it happen, and then makes it last. Someone proposes a more equitable world—the enfranchisement of working people, or of African-Americans, or of women, or marital rights for homosexuals—and then makes it endure by assuring those who oppose it that, while they may have lost the fight, they haven’t lost their dignity, their autonomy, or their chance to adapt to the change without fearing the loss of all their agency. “The civil-rights movement happened because there was civil disobedience, because people were willing to go to jail, because there were events like Bloody Sunday,” Obama told Stephanopoulos. “But it was also because the leadership of the movement consistently stayed open to the possibility of reconciliation, and sought to understand the views—even views that were appalling to them—of the other side.” Liberalism is a belief in radical change made through practical measures.I think "Liberalism is a belief in radical change through practical measures" gets very close to the heart of my own politics.
In the interview with Maron, the President, confronting frustrations with the fact that he wasn’t able to alter the world with the wave of a rhetorical wand, offered an alternative view of how big democratic societies work. They are, he said, like ocean liners: you turn the wheel slowly, and the big ship pivots. “Sometimes your job is just to make stuff work,” Obama said. “Sometimes the task of government is to make incremental improvements or try to steer the ocean liner two degrees north or south so that, ten years from now, suddenly we’re in a very different place than we were. At the moment, people may feel like we need a fifty-degree turn; we don’t need a two-degree turn. And you say, ‘Well, if I turn fifty degrees, the whole ship turns over’.” Note that the President wasn’t saying that big ships aren’t worth turning, just that it takes time. Their very bigness is what makes them turn slowly, but their bigness is also what makes them worth turning.
Beneath this pragmatism lies a deeper understanding that humanity is various, that the changes we work for will never be universally accepted, and the test of our politics is extending sympathy to those who seem to stand in the way. . . .
Obama’s liberalism is not therapeutic. You don’t listen to others to make them feel better. You listen because without their cooperation, or at least their tacit acceptance of the moral urgency of change, that long arc won’t bend and progress won’t happen. Your opponents have to understand that reform, even if it makes their fixations unsustainable, will not make their lives unlivable. Freedom didn’t happen because your opponents saw the light. It happened because they no longer found it necessary to live in the dark. Their hands may never move toward a candle, but their eyes adjust. Allowing for the adjustment and the time that it takes is part of the intelligence of politics.
What we have passed through in these eight years is perhaps much larger than we know. (When an ocean liner changes course, the people on deck are often the last to notice.) An African-American President in a nation long ruled by the rage over race, a potential female President at hand: these are big changes, even though made slowly. Of course, the case for evolutionary change can suddenly seem futile, even Pyrrhic, when we spy a meteor hurtling toward Earth, threatening an extinction event for incremental improvement of all kinds. This may give the President’s words an added pathos, but it leaves them no less true.